Catching Some Z’s: Positioning our Generation Z Students to Thrive in the Gig Economy

As the world shifts towards a gig economy, educators need to adapt our practices to prepare students for an uncertain future. But as author Greg McDonough explains, Gen Z and Gen Alpha are uniquely prepared to tackle these new challenges and embrace a leadership and community-based approach to teaching.

Walking down the halls of a middle school is a study in anthropology. Students practice choreographed dances (that only involve their upper torsos). Technology is as natural and ubiquitous as an additional appendage. Memes adorn lockers and shirts like a particularly gaudy checkerboard. These are all symptoms and staples of Generation Z (people born between 1996 and 2010). This is a generation shaped by constant connection. They have access to a previously unimaginable marketplace of ideas, where a barrage of information flows relentlessly and there is no barrier to becoming a creator.

 

Gig Economy

 

This virtual marketplace is no longer confined to the internet and apps. Many economists forecast a shift to a “Gig Economy.” In a Gig Economy, individuals are employed on a project-to-project basis. This gives one the flexibility to have more autonomy over worktimes and workflows while sacrificing some of the safety and stability of a salaried position. Over 25% percent of Americans are already involved in the Gig Economy. By 2027, CNBC predicts that the majority of workers will be independent contractors. While we can predict broad employment trends, it’s harder to determine what impact this will have on the people who make up this freelance workforce. The Gig Economy has been praised as empowering while simultaneously being critiqued as exploitative. This new economy will require entirely new skills to navigate.

 

Generation Z and the Gig Economy

 

Gen Z is more prepared than any previous generation to work within this new framework. Educators are fortunate to work with an exceptionally entrepreneurial group. Around 72% of current Gen Z high school students have aspirations to start a business. They also desire hands-on, authentic experiences. Nearly 80% of college students want their degree programs to involve authentic or internship-based aspects to their programs. This motivation and passion isn’t just limited to business: in an international survey aimed at women and LGBTQ+ Gen Z’ers, nearly 75% stated that activism is a core part of their identity. Many of the same skills that prepare students for their economic future will also make them more effective activists.

 

Impactful Education for Gen Z and the Gig Economy

 

Unfortunately, education as a whole in the U.S. is missing the mark. There’s a lack of both engagement and relevance for students who most need our support. In a survey of students who dropped out of high school, 20% cited lack of content relevance to their decision, and nearly 26% listed a major factor as boredom. American students also lag slightly behind their first world peers in math, reading, and science scores in standardized testing. These same Gen Z students who should be uniquely prepared to thrive in our current economic environment have frustrated employers who claim that nearly 60% of new hires lack critical thinking skills.

As educators and school leaders, we have the unique potential to redesign our curriculum in a way that prepares our learners for their futures. Perhaps more importantly, these skills are things that our students are hungry to learn. We can create lessons and units that are equally impactful and engaging. In the world of a Gig Economy, the difference between the empowered and exploited is often the education, skills, and privilege to avoid getting caught in the riptide of the economy.

 

Necessary Skills

 

The question then becomes,” What are the skills that students need to succeed in the future?” Each year, Linkedin publishes a list of the hard and soft skills that employers are most looking for in new hires. On the 2020 list, the hard skills are high-end and mostly tech-based: blockchain, cloud computing, analytical reasoning, artificial intelligence, etc. These are specialized skills that our students may need, but are something of a moving target to teach towards at the elementary school level. The soft skills, on the other hand, are much more stable. Creativity, persuasion, collaboration, adaptability, and emotional intelligence are all soft skills we are quite familiar with trying to teach in schools. These are the self-actualized skills we see at the top of Bloom’s Taxonomy and are a staple of progressive education.

 

Lake Forest Country Day School

 

Lake Forest Country Day School (LFCDS)  is an independent school located in the north suburbs of Chicago. The school serves around 400 students ranging from early childhood to eighth grade. I’ve been fortunate to run LFCDS’s Innovation Space for the past four years. As part of our innovation program, we’ve developed programs and opportunities for our students to demonstrate and share their creative leadership. We’ve found creating authentic audiences to be one of our most powerful tools both for developing 21st century skills in our students and motivating them to enthusiastically push their own boundaries and give them ownership of their learning. Within the past three years, we’ve developed programs for students to develop their creative leadership both in our school and around the community. This past year, we were forced to innovate in the face of the pandemic and attempted to reach a more global audience.

 

Real Life Application Examples

 

WithIn the School

 

Within any school ecosystem there is the capacity for authentic, creative student leadership. The bigger a district or age range, the more these possibilities exponentially increase. Progressive schools as a whole do a fantastic job of creating roles and experiences for students to demonstrate leadership and agency. This is no different at LFCDS. Student choice and voice is frequently built into the curriculum. Most of our school assemblies have various student speeches woven throughout the agenda. In addition, we have an annual speaking contest where our entire Upper School (fifth through eighth grade) creates a five-minute persuasive speech on a topic of their choice. This year, as always, had a wide range of topics including protecting bees, the importance of siblings, and embracing a trans identity.

 

Clubs are another tool that our school uses to create outlets for students’ passions. We have a number of more traditional club offerings including yearbook club, Student Advisory Board (our version of a student council), and an Environmental Awareness Club. Within the last several years, our Upper School created “Flex Blocks” into our schedule where students can propose and lead student interest clubs. Last year during LFCDS’s remote learning, we instituted a similar program called “Academies” for our first through fourth graders. The groups truly emphasize student voice. Our Service Learning Academy students, in the face of a global pandemic, chose ‘dogs’ as the group they most wanted to help. We partnered with a nearby animal rescue (Heartland Animal Shelter) to create “Adopt Me!” posters for each dog in shelter and organized a bandana and blanket drive. It was important work that would not have happened without our Gen Z and Gen Alpha students’ creativity.

 

Shared Spaces

 

In our school’s shared spaces, proximity can be our most valuable tool to promote student leadership. Something that delighted me when I first began my role in LFCDS’s iLab was seeing our older students organically interact with our younger students. An important aspect of our Innovation program is the “maker” component. We have the Innovation Space open during recess for our Upper School students and before school for our Lower School students as an “Open Shop” time where students can work on any project they want. This has led to an environment where our students really become the experts. When cool things are happening, students are drawn to it and ask questions about both the process and how they can accomplish something similar. It is the kind of feedback that kids crave and is incredibly difficult for an adult to simulate. This is not a one-way feedback loop, either. When a student is struggling with a project, there will always be other students to lend a hand. When this offer comes from older students rather than peers, I find students are less reticent to accept help. The students who thrive in this sort of leadership role aren’t necessarily the same children we see speaking in front of the whole school at assemblies. It’s often our quieter introverts who, perhaps unintentionally, take center stage in creativity. I have seen similar interactions happen in the library, on the playground, and in the lunchroom. Scheduled “unscheduled” time can often lead to some of the most powerful interactions.

 

Student Ambassadors

 

A unique aspect of working at an independent school is that we need to broadcast our vision to prospective families from across the Chicagoland area. It’s not a given that we’ll have students in our classrooms. I’m fortunate to work with an incredibly innovative admissions and marketing department at LFCDS. Alex Sheridan, our Director of Enrollment, Marketing, & Financial Aid , has always said that our students are the best ambassadors for our school. Our school open houses always have an interview component where an administrator has a panel discussion with four or five of our Upper School students. Again, it puts our kids front and center and gives them an important mission to share the school’s story.

Last year, we experimented with a weekend open house with an innovation component. Prospective families came into our building on a Saturday, and several of our fourth grade and middle school students facilitated makerspace activities for the children who attended the open house. What made this event so student-led was that our student leaders developed the stations they would be running, and set up activities for anyone who joined. Children who attended the event made jewelry, coded robots, worked with sewing machines, and more. Although these guests didn’t see our classes in action, I’d argue they learned just as much about the spirit and mission of our school by interacting directly with students.

 

In the Community

 

The plethora of possibility for students to share their voices and skills in the community is impressive. Having your ears to the ground and looking for ideas is one way to seek these opportunities . Twitter and other social media apps are fantastic tools for learning about pre-arranged prospects. Many volunteer organizations have programs created specifically for students. However, generating community involvement for our students should not just be a passive activity. A phone call or email to a potential partner with a pitch goes a long way and can generate a partnership that is tailored specifically for your students.

In many ways, these community partnerships are a tool that simulates the Gig Economy the most in our students’ lives. Working with middle schoolers, most of the initial outreach work falls to adults at our building to create various opportunities. At the high school level, it would make sense to have the students generate and pitch the partnership ideas themselves. We present multiple options to students each year to either present or volunteer. These community events are entirely optional as they take place outside of the designated school day. Students are presenting and sharing on topics in which they have demonstrated proficiency in the classroom and are working during their own time in our Innovation Space, so not much time is needed for prep. Around half of our Upper School Students have participated in one or more events in their time at LFCDS.

LFCDS has a variety of built-in advantages to make our programs successful. Our school’s administration, led by our Head of School Joy Hurd, are enthusiastic supporters of facilitating experiences for our students. None of our activities are resource-intensive, but there’s a willingness to innovate that allows us to be experimental in pursuing possibilities. We’re also lucky to work in a community with families that are true partners. For many of our weekend events, families are willing to drive children across the state for events. No matter how enthusiastic students and faculty are, without these supports developing a program that gives students experiences within the community is nearly impossible to facilitate.

Professional conferences and makerfaires are both fantastic outlets for creative leadership from students. The art of standing in front of a group and delivering a presentation on material that you are an expert in is such a core tenet of school. Our students are already trained to thrive in a conference format. Most conferences aimed at educators either have built in student-presentation components, or will be more than willing to accept an educator presentation with student co-presenters. LFCDS Upper School students have presented at close to a dozen conferences and makerfaires over the past three years. Their presentation topics have included Intro to CAD Design, Creating Inclusive Makerspaces, and Flow Art.

LFCDS is also proud of our “Pop Up Innovation” program (a more substantial writeup of our program can be found here). The program is based around access. There are substantial inequities in both technology and tools in schools and communities. Most of the cost related to maker technologies comes from the upfront costs: 3D Printers, robots, and power tools are all expensive investments. While upkeep and materials have a cost, it’s fairly affordable to manage a space once you have the tools. For Pop Up Innovation, we bring the makerspace to children at non-profits across the Chicagoland area. Anywhere from six to a dozen LFCDS students come with the materials to facilitate maker stations much like they did at our Weekend Open House. Each one of our Pop Up Innovation events looks quite different because the students themselves plan, implement, and lead each station based on their areas of interest and specialties.

 

On a Global Scale

 

One of the tragedies of the pandemic is how school and community relationships that are so incredibly important to our students have become so much more limited. By necessity, our innovation program chose to broaden the scope of our outreach by using virtual tools, thanks to the rapid implementation and proliferation of livestreaming and webinar software.

One of the most inspiring projects several of our eighth-graders took on at the start of the pandemic was designing masks for first responders and hospitals. Several students took advantage of home 3D printers to print masks, and we had a student who had made over fifty masks using her sewing machine. Sharing these projects and, perhaps more importantly, how someone else could replicate them was vitally important. We launched our student webinar series with these projects. Students would lead a live webinar for attendees, and we would record and post a finished product so they were accessible later. Over the course of the spring, we offered webinars on other topics such as candle making and soccer drills you could do alone at home.

We were also fortunate to be accepted to present at Make:’s “Virtually Makerfaire.” Our band director, Tracie Tatz, and I facilitated the participation of several of our students to share several of the innovative ways LFCDS continued a music and band curriculum even as we worked remotely. We had seven student presenters who had the experience of livestreaming to a global audience.

There were certainly some growing pains for this new form of presentation. Much like our teachers, students had to be trained in how to demonstrate hands-on projects via Zoom. This often involved experimenting with camera angles and lighting well before showtime. Another challenge was marketing the programs. While the content was fantastic and available globally, there was a question of the best way to advertise, especially given the privacy concerns that arrive using social media as a promotion tool. We’re excited to continue utilizing webinars moving forward, but we’re definitely still in our prototype phase!

 

Conclusion

 

Common refrains amongst educators are concerns for the next step: we need to prepare them for middle school, this won’t fly in high school, are they college ready? While school will remain linear, the paths for our students as adults will be nowhere near as consistent. Content will always be necessary, but the skills to navigate this new economy where jobs and even careers can change project to project are equally as vital.

The examples from my experiences obviously have a clear technology and innovation flavor. While these content areas certainly lend themselves to a more authentic creative leadership, this perspective is shaped far more by my position in our school than limits on other content areas. At LFCDS, I’ve seen our second grade students run a functioning carnival for their lower school peers and families, our middle school English students accept submissions and develop a literary book collection for distribution, and our eighth grade spanish students put on a fairy tale puppet show in spanish for our Early Childhood Center students. These opportunities can be created and curated for students at any grade level and integrated to a wide array of curriculums.

Fortunately, our students are uniquely prepared to tackle these challenges. The frequently bemoaned shortened attention spans and over-connectedness of our Gen Z students are frustrating in traditional education settings, but are manifestations of the underlying proclivities and latent skill sets that we can develop in our classrooms. Our world is shifting both economically and socially. With guidance, Gen Z can thrive as leaders in this new environment.